Belgium has long been a mecca of comic strip stars. Philippe Moins takes us on a tour of a museum dedicated to these national treasures. Available in French and English.
For more information about the history of comic strips in Belgium, read Philippe Moins' "Comic Strips and Animation: The Belgian Tradition." For the past ten years there has been in Brussels a very unusual museum, special in that it is completely devoted to the comic strip in all of its manifestations. Created by a small group of Belgian comic strip fans, who can boast about such hits as Tintin, The Smurfs, Spirou, Lucky Luke, Gaston Lagaffe, Blake and Mortimer and others, the museum occupies a remarkable building which was formerly a huge department store, built in 1906 by the architect Victor Horta, the foremost proponent of Art Nouveau in Belgium. The central peristyle, subtly lit from above, opens onto a magnificent monumental staircase that bestows on the whole ensemble a touch of class without being pompous, and lends "comics" an amusing respectability. Comic Strips and Animation Covering more than 15,000 square feet on three floors, the Museum displays from its collection original pages of comic artwork, sketches and memorabilia which belonged to comic-strip artists, along with various displays and more. One section of the museum ("The Comic Strip in Motion"), created by Folioscope, which also organizes the annual Brussels Cartoon and Animated Film Festival, is entirely devoted to animated film, and in particular to animations adapted from comics. A visit begins with a time-line picturing decade by decade the milestones of worldwide animation. After a brief glimpse at Winsor McCay (since he is also very "art nouveau," he is quite popular among comic connoisseurs in Belgium), the tour continues with a series of informational displays illustrating (using many original characters and backgrounds) the various steps of producing an animated film. A real animation stand, editing table and various objects, plus a large model, complete this display, which shows with humor and in a very realistic way, the life of a small Belgian animation studio, before the arrival of the computer. In the features of little 4-inch-high models (thanks to the talent of Martine Verlinden), connoisseurs can recognize in passing some figures from Belgian animation.
Collections Unique in the World
Aside from the section on "The Comic Strip in Motion," the Center has seven permanent exhibits, among them "The Museum of the Imaginary" (devoted to the inspirational sources for Tintin, which is a very successful presentation), "The Museum of the Modern Comic Book," which features dioramas of comic-book scenes that are very appealing to children (and adults!), and "The Treasury of Original Drawings," where all the great comic-book artists are represented. The Museum's collection of hand-drawn original comic-book pages, displayed in optimal conditions for preservation of the fragile inks and paper, are particularly rich, since many artists, well-known and little-known, have donated the originals of their favorite pages. Among them is the French film director Patrice Leconte, who was, though few know it, a comic-book artist for Pilot magazine before becoming the live-action feature director we all know. The Center inventories no less than 650 professional comic artists in Belgium, which, for a country of only 10 million inhabitants, constitutes the largest concentration of cartoonists per square mile in the world. Temporary exhibitions, lectures and some creative workshops as well, are hosted in the Museum, which is also blessed with a library of 40,000 books and reference works, along with a specialty book shop and cafe. An extension to the Museum is envisioned, since the growth of the collections and the number of visitors (240,000 each year) have made this lovely space too small.
A Comic Strip Tour
The Center for Comic Strips is also responsible for initiating, with the agreement of the Brussels city authorities, the "Comic Strip Tour," a plan to have current Belgian cartoon artists paint original murals on the walls of certain buildings in the center of town. Another project should also see the light of day in the coming years, independently from the Belgian Center for Comic Strips: the Tintin Museum. The Herge Foundation would like to situate this project at Place Fontainas, less than half-a-mile from the Center for Comic Strips. Will this museum remain in the shadow of the Center, or will it benefit from the comic-book presence, which is already teeming in Brussels? The latter seems most probable, especially if one considers the numerous specialty book-shops for comics, some of which devote space to public exhibits of new independent comics, such as the book shop "Bruzel" and the Gallery "Without Title," both of which are nearby. By presenting themselves as different, but equally as interesting to the comic strip enthusiast, the Tintin Museum could add an extra attraction to an ensemble that forms a tour through the whole historic center of town. Is Brussels the comic book world capital? Most of the citizens of Brussels have too much of a sense of humor to get themselves up in such gaudy feathers. But maybe they should. Belgian Center for Comic Strips 20 rue des Sables, Brussels Tel: (322) 219.19.80 Fax: (322) 219.23.76 Hours: Museum, Permanent and Temporary Exhibits, Bookstore, Cafe: Daily except Monday from 10 am to 6 pm. Library and Documentation Center (must be 16 or older): Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 5 pm; Friday from noon to 6 pm; Saturday from 10 am to 6 pm. Reading Room for Comic Books (open to all): Same times as Library, as well as Sundays noon to 6 pm.
Translated from French by William Moritz.
Philippe Moins is co-director of the Animation Festival of Brussels. He is also the regular animation reporter for the daily Belgian newspaper Le Matin (The Morning Paper).